Thousands of Syrian civilians are abandoning their homes and fleeing into already crowded rebel-held neighbourhoods of Eastern Ghouta as Syrian regime forces push closer into the heart of the besieged enclave.
Nearly three weeks into the offensive against the Damascus suburb, which has already killed more than 900 people, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are on the cusp of splitting Eastern Ghouta into two halves.
A planned humanitarian aid delivery was called off amid a relentless bombardment from warplanes and artillery, while doctors said several dozen people were brought into hospital after a suspected chemical weapons attack.
Syrian regime troops and allied Shia militias have captured several districts in the east of the opposition-held pocket and are moving to sever the last narrow corridor of territory connecting the northern and southern parts.
Many civilians have simply stayed in their homes as the regime forces advanced into their neighbourhoods. But others have grabbed their few belongings and risked travelling into the open to flee deeper into Eastern Ghouta.
A significant portion of the internally displaced people headed to the northern district of Douma, where families were already living in densely-packed basements as they tried to seek shelter from the bombs.
“Douma cannot take in more people,” said Haitham, a resident of the area. “There are families in the streets, there are people trying to get into basements, they are living in open areas. Some people are moving into destroyed apartments and hanging up sheets for shelter.”
He said: “It is a miserable situation and it is getting more tragic all the time.”
Waiel Olwan, a spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman rebel group, said that many of the people killed on Wednesday and Thursday had died on the roads as they tried to stay ahead of advancing regime forces.
If Eastern Ghouta is divided in two by Assad’s troops it would leave Failaq al-Rahman in control of the southern portion, along with several smaller factions, while the Army of Islam, an Islamist rebel group, would retain control of Douma and the northern area.
“It’s not clear if the division has happened already but it will happen. Then the regime will be able to more easily negotiate the surrender of these two enclaves that it’s created,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.
A UN and Red Cross convoy was supposed to travel into Eastern Ghouta on Thursday to deliver aid but the delivery was postponed amid the shelling. A convoy was able to reach the area Monday but did not have time to make a full delivery.
A UN security council resolution passed on February 24 called for a ceasefire across all of Syria and the unfettered delivery of aid to besieged areas like Eastern Ghouta. Neither of those calls have been heeded by Russia or the Syrian regime.
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Members of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the opposition umbrella group, are in New York this week calling for the UN to enforce its security council resolution. But Hadi al-Bahra, an SNC member, said he saw little sign that Western countries would act.
“Unfortunately, until now I don’t see any clear direction on specific actions to be taken. There is a consensus on the need to do something but no clear direction on what to do,” he said.
France, Britain and the US have repeatedly mulled over strikes against the Assad regime or new sanctions against its allies Russia and Iran during the course of Syria’s seven-year-war but no action seems likely over the killing in Eastern Ghouta.
Doctors with the Syrian American Medical Society said they had treated at least 29 people for a suspected chlorine gas attack. No one was killed. Another alleged chlorine attack killed a child in Eastern Ghouta in late February and several other chemical attacks were reported before that.
Meanwhile, Turkish forces captured a key town in their offensive against the Kurdish-held pocket of Afrin in northern Syria.
After weeks of hard fighting, which has killed 42 Turkish soldiers, Turkey’s military captured the town of Jandairis, the second most important area after the city of Afrin itself.
Mevlut Çavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said he hoped the offensive would be over by the end of May.